Bruce Lee’s “Warrior,” and the Politics of Kung Fu

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“Gets pretty exhausting after a while,” Ah Sahm tells his lover Ah Toy in the latest season of “Warrior.” “Surviving?” she asks.

“Being hated,” he replies.

It is the late eighteen-hundreds, a period wedged in between the end of the American Civil War and the signing of the Chinese Exclusion Act. Immigration is high, and racism is rampant. Ah Sahm (Andrew Koji) and Ah Toy (Olivia Cheng) are strolling through San Francisco’s Chinatown, the only place where they can exist without trouble. This haven, along with most of San Francisco, would eventually be destroyed by the great earthquake of 1906. White architects would be hired to turn the ravaged area into a tourist destination, which is to say, an exotic fantasy—American-style buildings embellished with colorful pagodas, dragon motifs, and other elements of chinoiserie. It is in the original Chinatown, where hope and devastation are twofold, that the television series, based on the writings of Bruce Lee, takes place.

For decades, Lee’s TV show, originally called “The Warrior,” was essentially an urban legend. Lee wrote the initial scripts in the late sixties, and the series was teased on “The Pierre Berton Show” in 1971, but it didn’t materialize before Lee’s death in 1973. In 2007, the director Justin Lin, best known at the time for his Asian American coming-of-age film “Better Luck Tomorrow,” made a mockumentary called “Finishing the Game,” about another unfinished Lee project: “Game of Death,” the movie that Lee was working on when he died. A few years later, Lin, who had become steeped in Bruce Lee lore, contacted Lee’s daughter, Shannon, and asked if she still had her father’s pitch materials for “The Warrior.” She gave Lin a binder, which included Lee’s original eight-page show proposal, along with a half-dozen drafts of sample episodes and scenes. Together, Lin and Shannon Lee, along with Jonathan Tropper, the creator of “Banshee,” expanded these materials into “Warrior,” which premièred on Max in 2019, and recently concluded its third season.

At the start of the series, Ah Sahm, the show’s protagonist, is standing in an immigration line, having just arrived from China. A fellow-migrant is getting pushed around by a trio of white immigration officers, and Ah Sahm jumps to protect him. An officer slaps Ah Sahm, who turns his head slowly and says, “I wouldn’t do that again if I were you.” The fighting that follows is brutal and fast, belied by a funky bass that makes the protagonist’s steps feel rhythmic. Even those who watch “Warrior” without knowing the series’ relation to Bruce Lee will notice that Ah Sahm moves like him. Kung-fu characters are heroic, suspended in the disbelief of a (sometimes cheesy) epic; they’re the Greek mythology of East Asia. But if the hero has a believable swagger, as Ah Sahm does, one’s mind instantly darts to Lee. During the fight, I half expected Ah Sahm to let out a shriek—an imitation of Lee’s infamous battle cry, which defined the actor’s singular presence in pop culture. Its use became commensurately racist for the generations of Asian Americans that followed: growing up, I only knew Lee as the minstrel performed at me. But Ah Sahm, who is played by a mixed-race British Japanese actor, is unmistakably modern, with his bravado manifesting in the smooth insults of a proficient English speaker. (“I didn’t travel halfway across the world in that damn boat just to amuse a few fat white fucks,” he tells the officers.) The brawl, which Ah Sahm wins handily, is the kind of thing that a nonwhite person fantasizes about after being treated as subhuman—a kick-ass solution to a miasmic attack. Other television series have played on a similar impulse: in “Watchmen,” also on Max, a Black cop narrowly escapes a lynching but leaves the noose around his neck, as a form of battle garb, before stomping on a gathering of unhooded Klansmen.

Shortly after his run-in with the immigration officers, Ah Sahm is picked up by a fixer named Wang Chao (Hoon Lee), who brings him to a crime family known as the Hop Wei. Wang, the only character who maintains his Qing dynasty queue, speaks Cantonese. But, during Wang’s introduction of Ah Sahm to the Hop Wei, the show uses a camera trick that Tropper refers to as “ ‘The Hunt for Red October’ transition.” The camera pans around Wang, and his speech suddenly changes from subtitled Cantonese to fluent American English, turning the audience into native speakers of his language. The camera trick serves as a kind of racist-vibes jammer—preventing viewers from otherizing Wang.

But there’s a cost to translation. The series nods to the Chinglish patois spoken in Chinatown, where words that have hard stops are pronounced instead with tones held as connective filler, the tenors of which can be expressions on their own. The “Ah” (阿) in Ah Sahm is a word in Cantonese that, depending on the speaker’s lilt, can sound like “Yo Sahm” or “Heyyy Sahm,” a familiar but non-gendered Sahm. And yet the complexity of Cantonese as a developed system of communicating familiarity (and of communicating insults) is lost by making the show so English-forward. “Warrior” compensates for this by infusing the dialogue with wit and attitude, which is perhaps the essence of Cantonese, and the essence of Bruce Lee himself.

“Warrior” tells the story of two crime families—the Hop Wei, which Ah Sahm ultimately joins, and the Long Zii—who are embroiled in a conflict that’s known as the Tong Wars. Lin has said that he was eager to develop a relegated history while also making mainstream entertainment. “I’ve always felt like it’s such an American story, but never told,” he explained, in a 2019 interview. “Warrior” expands our ideas of what constitutes “American history” by partly focussing on another competition—between the Irish and Chinese communities in San Francisco. The Irish community is led by Dylan Leary (Dean Jagger), a de-facto labor organizer who goes to extreme lengths to maim Chinese workers in sought-after jobs, negotiating with American robber barons and elected officials. Meanwhile, the Long Zii make a deal with a nativist deputy mayor, in exchange for opium and increased policing of the Hop Wei. The deputy, who aspires to become the next mayor of San Francisco, encourages disorder in Chinatown so that he can run on a platform that involves ejecting all Chinese residents from the city. But he’s also interested in something more systematic: the creation of legislation to restrict immigration by targeting one specific ethnic group. Leary and the Long Zii both represent marginalized groups that have sold out for marginal power. It’s a clear charter to respective destruction, for the Long Zii especially, since their turf war will inevitably end with an immigration ban that will last more than sixty years, followed by another twenty-plus years of restrictions.

At times, “Warrior” can feel radical. It not only conjures figures who have rarely been centered on television before but also supplies these characters with rich inner lives. Still, there’s an occasional narrowness, which might be attributed to the fact that the show was conceived in the nineteen-sixties, by an actor who was predominantly interested in documenting the Chinese experience in America. There are barely any Black characters present, aside from a drug dealer and a vixen bartender, and their story lines are bland, despite occurring in the period immediately following Reconstruction. Even if the show’s focus is on Irish immigrants and Chinese people making a deal with whitey to tear one another down, it seems like there’s still an opportunity to shift the camera to nearby Stone Street, which was once the only Black enclave in San Francisco.

It might feel nitpicky to criticize an Asian American show for overlooking the strife of other racial groups, but the absence is noticeable in an ambitious period piece that aims to depict America’s forgotten histories, as well as the scourge of white supremacy. And it’s especially noticeable in 2023, when the narrow focus of “Warrior” feels not unlike the politics of Asian parents whose calls for racial equality have helped bring about the end of affirmative action. Siloing history has an unintended effect of tiering suffering. It also allows groups, driven by their own ethnocentric proclivities, to roll back the progress that others have made.

When the three creators of “Warrior” sought to revive Lee’s project, they focussed on shifting the proposal away from the adventure-of-the-week format that was popular in Lee’s time and creating something more cinematic and prestige TV-like—the kind of thing that would feel at home on HBO. But, by leaving the rest intact, they inherited the blindspots of the classic kung-fu films to which “Warrior” is a loving tribute. Take, for example, the nineties film franchise “Once Upon a Time in China,” which starred Jet Li as a fictionalized Wong Fei-hung, a physician and fighter who defends the Chinese way of life in an ailing Qing dynasty from warlords. Or the “Ip Man” franchise, which follows the story of Bruce Lee’s martial-arts instructor as he fights Japanese occupiers in Foshan during the Second World War, before his forced migration to Hong Kong. Both follow the standard format of kung-fu flicks, by supplying the hero with increasingly challenging opponents whom he must defeat. Each opponent has an advantage over the hero by being bigger and stronger or armed with a unique weapon. But the underdog hero prevails by being smart and remaining composed. These movies, kung-fu westerns, are loosely based around the imperialist scramble to carve up China, and yet it doesn’t really matter what external or systemic factors are leading to societal disarray, as those mostly serve as a backdrop. The only thing that matters is the protagonist’s journey of overcoming his personal challenges. It’s an innocuous if not classic story, but what does prolonged exposure to fictionalized history—or a speculative reality—amount to?

I’ll call it kung-fu politics—a one-sided, regressive vision of the world, developed from action movies. Perhaps the best example is the actor Jackie Chan, who moved the dial in the genre from Qing dynasty kung-fu masters to hero cops. Chan, who won audience’s hearts by playing a goofy and delightful protagonist, would eventually come to represent a singular force for good, both onscreen and in real life. But play the hero police officer too often, and it’s easy to drift into authoritarian thinking. Over the years, Chan has made comments about how “we Chinese need to be controlled,” or else “we’ll just do what we want.” Chan, along with Donnie Yen—the star of a revamped “Ip Man” film franchise—have opposed the pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong, with Chan signing a petition in support of the draconian Chinese security law that was passed to quash the dissent, and Yen calling the dissenters rioters.

“Warrior” wishes to evolve the kung-fu genre, rather than challenge it outright. This is partly done through the show’s fight scenes. In an interview several years ago, Ip Chun, the son of Ip Man, who is in his late nineties and has taken over as grand master for his father, spoke about the inevitability of martial arts moving away from Wing Chun, the style of fighting that his father helped Bruce Lee master. “My thought is that the future society that necessitates the need for violence to resolve an issue will be less and less,” he said. “Someone who emphasizes Wing Chun and relies on it for fighting—like one person fighting nine,” he added, “Well, I say it’s of no help solving society’s problems.” For him, Wing Chun is mostly a “health regimen”—a historically and symbolically rich version of Zumba.

In “Warrior,” martial arts is more than just a health regimen. (Bruce Lee himself, understanding the fantastical nature of action stories, said in 1971 that his show would have to be set in the West: “How else can you justify all this punching and kicking and violence?”) Ah Sahm, in his battles with the Long Zii, often fights alongside the Hop Wei prince, played by Jason Tobin, another mixed-race Chinese British actor, who was born in Hong Kong. Tobin’s character—which is not unlike his character in “Better Luck Tomorrow”—might be best described as “stabby.” He is a stereotype of a kind of pent-up Chinese American aggression. Ah Sahm’s fighting is more thoughtful, elegant, and deliberate. He is a master of Wing Chun, but, as the series goes on, he transitions to Jeet Kune Do, a more efficient and flexible form of mixed martial arts, invented by Lee. (It has been said that the style is the forerunner to the mixed martial arts that is used by today’s U.F.C. fighters.) His movements, a cadence of pulses through his upper torso, with bounces in his shoulders matched by misdirection from his arms and feet, can be reminiscent of a b-boy toprock, a callback to an origin of hip-hop dance.

In both fighting and dance, the body is the main vehicle of expression—ideas, emotions, and history are sublimated into movements that can be explosively deliberate or tranquil. Tropper has talked about how “Warrior” relies on its battle scenes for character development. “I get very into the weeds on the fights, as expressions of the characters and as expressions of what the story is,” he said, in an interview. “Every fight has to tell a story. It can’t just be two guys duking it out.”

“Warrior” likes to switch between elevating action—using it as a way to express key themes—and explicitly nodding to the pulpy seduction of kung fu. It’s a continuation of Bruce Lee’s work: the actor was known for balancing heady ideas while still entertaining audiences with his sheer physicality. But it’s a delicate balance, and, as the show progresses, it becomes harder for the characters to slip their warrior personas on and off. In the third season, a woman encounters Ah Sahm and sees him not as he sees himself—a benevolent outcast finding his path—but as the Hop Wei gangster he publicly presents as. He is practicing shirtless with nunchucks (another Bruce Lee tableau), and the woman sarcastically plays down his prowess. At the end of the scene, she leaves, blushing. Ah Sahm, a little confused, continues training. ♦


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